(Photo : Buena Vista )
Benedict Cumberbatch is quickly rising up the ranks in Hollywood. The British actor starred in five movies in 2013 including his breakout role as Khan in "Star Trek: Into Darkness." He also had the privilege of opening the Toronto Film Festival with the film "The Fifth Estate" in which he played Julian Assange. The actor also had two other films at the festival: "12 Years a Slave" and "August: Osage County." For the latter films Cumberbatch has obtained two Screen Actors Guild Award nominations in the Best Ensemble category. After a hectic fall season, he concludes the year with his first Motion Capture role as Smaug the dragon in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."
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Cumberbatch had a few moments to speak to Latinos Post about the challenges and the excitement of accepting the role.
"It's the first time I've ever done any motion capture and I absolutely loved it. It was the beginning of developing a character both physically and vocally," Cumberbatch said.
The actor was adamant of doing a role in the film especially after voicing the Necromancer in first installment, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." He quickly asked director Peter Jackson to be able to do the dragon without realizing the monstrous task ahead.
"I actually asked Peter to do it. I thought it was just a voiceover and because of my year and other things that have been going on, I was really quite busy and doing a live-action character would have probably been impossible," he explained. "But both Smaug and the Necromancer began on the Mo Cap (Motion Capture) station. I absolutely loved it. I was just wanting to learn and experience it. It is a wonderful art form and you get to be really expressive."
Cumberbatch eventually realized that being in a motion capture station gave him freedom as an actor and allowed him to experiment his art form.
"You are probably playing like a kid in a bedroom again," he noted. "You have to imagine the environment around you; you don't have props, you don't have actors, you don't have continuity, makeup, hair. That basically gives you a lot of freedom; it's not a restriction."
He continued, "It's harder I think doing live action with green screen than it is doing motion capture because in motion capture you are your own obstacle. You can go as far or as near as you want with it."
In the early stages of the character, Cumberbatch noted that there were sketches of the dragon but nothing specific enough to work off; this not only gave him more responsbilities, but also enabled him to make hte character very much his own.
"There was a very vague kind of pre-vizualization sketches. Not sort of artistic impressions of him, more sorts of storyboards so I had some idea of his scale and the geography of the Ereborn gold and the physical environment when he discovers Bilbo," he elaborated. "So I kind of extrapolated from that a sense of an imaginary landscape in the Mo Cap volume stage."
He also looked at the early sketches of Tolkien's illustrations for more ideas of the dragon. Once he had a clear conception of the character Cumberbatch went back to his childhood memories when his dad used to read to him in bed. He recalled the times when his father impersonated each character in "The Hobbit," especially Gollum who he recalls vividly.
"My father read me the books when I was young around six or seven because I went to boarding school when I was eight. So it was a bedtime treat and when he read the first two chapters it was a beautiful illustrated edition and I could look at the pictures," said Cumberbatch. "So both the pictures and my dad, who was a great actor and colored the book with his reading of it with the most amazing characterization of voices, helped me immerse myself in the world. It was the first real imaginary landscape from print that I kind of took flight into it and realized every moment of it. I really knew who Bilbo was and Gandalf and all of these creatures. And my father was really amazing at dramatizing them.
"His reading of Gollum is the one I remember more than other," he continued. "He used to do it to make me laugh if I was in a grumpy mood. I kind of owe this to him and he was the first person I told. And he was thrilled for me. That's where it started."
In his preparation Cumberbatch also noted that he studied reptile movements and tried to understand how they could speak if it was possible.
"Like a good well trained actor I went to the zoo to the reptile house to look at Kamodo dragons and other reptiles, serpents, bats, and winged creatures. I sort of try to imagine their movement and imagine where a voice would come from these kinds of shapes and forms," he stated.
Regarding his physical preparation, the actor practiced reptilian movements in his home.
"I explored them in the bedroom of prepping as an actor and sort of mocking. Just try to throw myself around and experiment with it. I just started to play with Pete and I said 'Look I just got a long way to go with how to physicalize and I know it's only going to be a touchstone to what the boys and girls of Weta are gonna do but it would be great to just get playing and experiment.' And that's what I did."
He added that while on set he was able to see the playback and the process from live action to CGI in order to get a sense of the gestures.
"After two days I had solid gestures and watched the playback on my Avatar, the digital version to see what I was doing and it was sort of an evolving process. I came back for another two voiceover sessions and then another two days at the middle of this year."
Jackson has used Motion Capture throughout his most recent films including "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "King Kong." Andy Serkis has pioneered the art form with Jackson and has perfected motion capture, especially with his iconic turns as Gollum and "King Kong;" he is also playing Caesar the ape in the new "Planet of the Apes" series. While Serkis worked on second unit for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," the thespian did not create any characters for the film; as a result Cumberbatch, who has been friends with Serkis for a number of years, was not able to work him on the Motion Capture.
"I met him after I had actually wrapped on my first session," said Cumberbatch. "He came down from being on holiday to start up with second unit filming in the New Year about a year ago. I was gutted in a way because like I said he is the pioneer and king of this art form and I really wanted to work with him."
Despite being unable to work alongside Serkis, he did have the benefit of having Jackson show him the conversion process from the motion capture to CGI.
He said, "I was very lucky when Peter showed me an unfinished but first cut of the encounter with Gollum and Bilbo in the Misty Mountain, the riddle scene. About two minutes [into the clip], the CGI melted away and it was just Andy in a Mo Cap suit. And every gesture, every speed of it, every vocal, intonation and quality, it's all there. It's a live performance what you see. What they put is just a bit of bare skin, and wispy hair, and bulging eyes, and it's a beautiful creation. But every expression, every intonation and the boys and girls of Weta will tell you this, it comes from this phenomenal live performance.
"So I was treated to that and I said to him when we met up after I had done some work, 'God I really want to do that, I really miss being able to talk to you about it and get used to it with you.'"
However, Cumberbatch did note that playing a dragon was completely different from anything Serkis had ever done.
"I had to do something that I don't think he's done. You know he played mammals and I had to play a reptilian serpent and it's completely impossible with our human form," he explained. "So my work was much more abstract, I had to squeeze my legs together, crawl around in my belly pushing myself along with my hands, and over articulate my neck and try to extend my lower jaw and snout and tighten my face into something that would be akin to what you eventually see as Smaug.
"There were definitely moments that do translate but of nothing like the amount that Andy's final work shows. But yes it would have been great to collaborate with Andy but the timing was off."
Cumberbatch's training was essential to his performance but actor also credits writer Fran Walsh and Jackson as important anchors for creating the dragon.
"I had Peter and Fran work with me all the time and they're the creative ends behind all of this. To have their focus on script, and character and performance, that's a real treat," he added. "We got along real well. They were so welcoming to me. It was a really intense, short amount a time I worked with them but I felt good the minute I stepped off that plane. It's been a great experience."
Even though the process of creating the character was fascinating and something Cumberbatch notes has "been a long journey but a really enjoyable one," the actor said that there were some downsides to working in a studio all alone. He noted that he was not able to share the experiences with the rest of the cast and met them for the first time at the Premiere of the film.
"Great friendships and stories were formed and I kind of missed out on that side of the film," he stated. "It's been great catching up with people I had scenes with who I didn't get to meet until I was on the red carpet."
After having finally seen the complete product Cumberbatch believes audiences will be astonished by CGI work.
"I think they really honored that in the final product. It's astonishingly real," he enthused. "It's a seamless experience and I think with the Dragon in 48 frames you're looking at it and thinking that this looks like a creature that could exist.
"It's astonishing. Every scale has a sort of level of detail and richness to it. It feels tactile and almost like you can smell, hear and see it. While they did something incredible in motion picture form, I think they honored the kind of shape and coloring and movement that you get a sense of in all the great illustrations of this character since the book was first written."
With "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" having already been a hit at the box office audiences are sure to anticipate the last installment of the trilogy "The Hobbit: There and Back Again." With post-production underway Cumberbatch has hinted that he may still have some more work ahead.
"It's an evolving process with Pete because he never sits still. He's always seeking perfection and if he wants more he'll ask for it. So I'm not holding my breath. There might be more."